It can be difficult to switch off at the end of a stressful day. For our self-soothing special, Louise Chunn, founder of welldoing.org, suggests how to relax after work in ways that don’t involve eating or drinking
Working can be great fun. It’s not just about earning a living; work can give us purpose, a reason to put on our shoes and dash off in the morning. We often make life-long friends, achieve goals that boost our confidence, and discover things about ourselves that make us feel proud and like the grown-ups we never quite felt we were.
However … we can’t ignore the fact that work is also the reason that many people struggle with stress and mental health problems. The 21st century workplace can be a high-pressure place, with constant monitoring of success or failure. Even in what might seem to be the easier side, freelance life, there’s the insecurity of “gig economy” jobs, with zero-hours contracts, and little sense that employers care about their staff.
As I run welldoing.org, a site which helps people find therapists, I know that work can cause real anxieties for people because so many seek professional help. Perhaps they’re bullied, or fear redundancy, or worry that they’ve done something wrong, or simply just hate the place they spend their working hours but are afraid to leave it. The resultant stress has an impact on many areas of your health from high blood pressure and reduced immune resistance to the possibility of depression and burnout.
Instead of coming home and trying to de-stress by eating, drinking or blobbing out in front of the TV, why not try some of these self-soothing tips? Don’t just talk about self-care (the latest trend in therapy), but take some practical steps to make yourself feel better. Even trying a handful of them will take the pressure down a couple of notches, and you may be surprised at how differently you’ll view the daily grind. So, when you come out of work today, why not try something new?
Take a walk on a “green route”
Instead of getting on a bus, train or tube during rush hour, walk for a while in an area where there are trees or open spaces. Obviously this won’t be practical for everyone, but it could even be that you walk along your bus route, but don’t get on for a mile or two. There’s a dual-effect there: you won’t be squashed in with so many other stressed-out people, and you’ll get fresh air and exercise (so long as you can find the least-congested road around).
Have a drink — of matcha tea
You may be gagging for a soup bowl of viognier, but you’re far better to opt for powdered green Japanese tea. It has high levels of the amino acid L-theanine, which has been shown to improve emotional regulation and reduce psychosocial stress in mice. It appears to activate the prefrontal cortex, which could alleviate stress.
Get some exercise, but investigate what suits you
Swimming lengths may be just what you need to switch off; or will it just allow you to ruminate on what’s gone wrong earlier that day? You should experiment with different activities. For some people running is a cure-all, but for others it ratchets up their stress, especially if it’s competitive. Exercise ranges from yoga and tai chi to weight training, so you have plenty to choose from.
Give yourself a massage
Long-term stress means that cortisol levels in your body will be high, keeping your muscles primed for fight or flight. One way of dealing with this is to manually relax your muscles. Studies have shown that massage increases your body’s levels of oxytocin and serotonin, which should lower your blood pressure and improve your mood. Look online for self-massage tips and videos, and stock up on deliciously scented, relaxing massage oils.
Talk to your partner or your family
You might feel that you don’t want to talk about work stresses at home, but so long as you don’t become too self-absorbed, it may be better to let off some steam this way. Internalising conflicts doesn’t help you deal with them; it’s more likely to make them seem much more complex and serious. Trying to keep a sense of proportion is a better goal than trying to keep secret your unhappiness about a work situation. Sometimes having a drink and a rant is just what the psychologist ordered.
Do something creative: write, draw, knit, make a pot
Creativity is a double-edged sword: it can be profoundly stressful, as people in creative industries know. But, tapping into your creative side outside of your usual work hours can be good for boosting your mood. Yes, I’m talking evening classes, or simply making time to do creative things that you like. There is evidence that making music, doing art, movement or creative writing can all help you emotionally and physically, by reducing stress symptoms and anxiety. If you don’t have a creative bone in your body, try some colouring in.
Check your thinking — are you giving yourself the best chance to relax?
When things get tough lots of people find themselves getting into a stressful cycle of negative thinking. If only it were so easy to snap out of it. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is particularly good for tackling this problem, and it can benefit your overall health too. According to a large study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, MRI scans of people under chronic occupational stress shows that the brain reacts to stresses by changing its circuitry. This might help it function under stress, but it’s bad for longterm health, including mental health. In this study, CBT actually reversed those changes.
Keep your home in order
I don’t wish to sound bossy, but coming back to a relatively serene home (or room) can help. According to Psychology Today, a 2010 study measured the way 60 individuals discussed their homes. Women who described their living spaces as “cluttered” or full of “unfinished projects” were more likely to be depressed and fatigued than women who described their homes as “restful” and “restorative.” The clutterers also had higher levels of cortisol, the anxious-making stress hormone.
Try mindfulness meditation –– you might take to it
There’s been an awful lot written about mindfulness in the past 10 years, but don’t let its ubiquity put you off. There are apps like Headspace and Calm that thousands of people swear by, but if your stress levels are through the roof, you might want to try taking a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course such as https://mbsr.co.uk/8weekmindfulnesscourse.php. The aim with mindfulness is to guide your mind away from overanalysing the past or worrying about the future, and pull you towards living in the moment. Gill Hasson’s Mindfulness: Be mindful. Live in the moment. or Ed Halliwell’s Mindfulness: How To Live Well By Paying Attention (Hay House Basics) are both good guides, plus there are lots of free guided meditations online for you to experiment with.
Get professional help with a counsellor
If you give into stress it can affect all of your life, your relationships, your health and your mental health. You can completely lose perspective, catastrophising about your job and never finding any time when work is not at the top of your mind. Therapists and counsellors can work very well with such situations. Often it’s short-term therapies such as CBT, but for others, there may be deeper, psychodynamic work, that will look into your childhood, and the reasons you fall into particular patterns. Hypnotherapy can also be useful if the stress has become connected to specific fears or addictions. You don’t have to know which one is for you; the welldoing.org questionnaire is designed to match you with the therapist most suited to your needs. Find a therapist at the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.
The most important thing is to do something! Grinning and bearing work-induced stress isn’t sustainable and will probably make truly relaxing even less likely. You owe it to your mind and body to find some peace —- at least for when you’re out of the office.
Louise Chunn is the founder of find a therapist platform welldoing.org. She is former editor of Psychologies and four other consumer magazines, but she is now firmly committed to her new life as an entrepreneur. Welldoing was recently chosen as a Top Therapy Blog 2017 and is linked to NHS Choices. Louise, who has three largely grown-up children, lives in London where she is determined to fit in friendly tennis matches, Pilates classes and dog walks with the fast-moving culture of heading up a tech startup.